If you’ve ever played a roguelite, you’ve seen it all before. Head out on a run, collect resources and equipment, fail at some point, use those resources to purchase upgrades, and try again and again, getting a little bit further each time until the Big Evil is defeated. In an increasingly crowded genre, Ship of Fools adheres to the formula like the suckers of a particularly strong octopus but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a look – especially if you have someone to play co-op with.
Waking up as a little frog guy on a beach, you soon learn that a massive storm filled to the brim with sea monsters threatens to wash everyone and everything away. Crabs and seagulls scuttle about as you leave the beach to sail off on your first voyage to tackle the source of said storm, meeting a menagerie of whimsical sea-creature-themed characters to provide help in the form of upgrades to your ship.
The tower defence-style gameplay loop here is straightforward. You man a small ship with four docks to place cannons on. Numerous monsters will attack from either port or starboard, requiring you to manually pick up and move your cannon back and forth between each side to blast them away. Some critters will leap onboard and, with a few whacks of your wooden paddle, you can kill them with a simple combo and can charge up for a spin attack to deflect certain projectiles. Otherwise, you have to continually reload your cannons as more aggressive and hectic waves of creatures attempt to sink you – and sink you they will. Once sunk, you’ll wash up on the beach to begin again.
To help stay afloat, you can find and place different types of ammunition and buffs upon pedestals at the centre of the ship. One might be a bird that lays freezing ice eggs to load into your cannons. Another might produce a lyre that when fired at multiple enemies links the damage done to them together. Scattered throughout the murky waters are also equipable trinkets to help you along your way.
After each encounter, a hexagonal map pops up to let you choose where to go next. Shops, games of chance, planks to repair your ship, random events, and more are your choices, and as you sail along, the encroaching storm gets ever closer. Once the darkened parts of the map reach you, this triggers that area’s boss battle.
A lot of this will certainly sound familiar. In true roguelite fashion, we found the minute-to-minute gameplay hectic with dozens of enemies attacking us at once, but Ship of Fools’ crisp, cartoonish art direction kept us from feeling too overwhelmed. Often, we’d pick up our cannon instead of mounting it, or forget to load ammo from one of the pedestals as a dozen explosive puffer fish closed in, but that was all part of the fun. As we learned enemy attack patterns and acquired sturdy ship upgrades, better cannons, and playable characters with unique abilities, we began to overcome the onslaught the stormy sea threw at us.
This did, however, turn the first area into a slog. Before long we had memorised the attack patterns of the myriad enemies found in The Forgotten Waters, which led to them becoming less like threats and more like damage sponges to grind through. When we failed a run, we lamented that we had to sail through the first area once again, and found ourselves rushing to the boss as quickly as possible to the detriment of the strength of our ship.
This is alleviated somewhat if you're playing with a friend. Ship of Fools truly shines in co-op. While it can be played solo with an automatically firing cannon in lieu, having someone frantically ask you to help reload as you swing madly at a swarm of little snails overrunning the deck makes solo play seem almost untenable by comparison.
In fact, the few hours we managed to wrangle a friend into giving Ship of Fools an honest try were by far the best. We had a hard time going back to playing by our lonely selves, leaving us wishing for some boon or incentive to make solo play more appealing. Yes, it’s possible (though more difficult) to clear it alone. Still, we highly recommend securing a partner whether locally or online for an afternoon or two of sea-faring chaos.
There is no significant story or endgame to bring you back after clearing the short adventure, but we found this refreshing in an era of never-ending titles and 100-hour JRPGs. Ship of Fools is a cute little game that runs well outside of some negligible slowdown, plays great with a friend, and has a stellar soundtrack we’ve somehow neglected to mention until now. You don’t really need much more if you're after a fun co-op experience that won't engulf your entire life.
How much you'll enjoy Ship of Fools comes down to whether or not you have someone to play with. If you do have a friend that enjoys roguelikes and/or tower defence — and has a penchant for sea shanties — then we can guarantee Ship of Fools will give you a handful of hours of frantic fun. And if you have few friends but enjoy this addictive genre, you might eke out enough nautical miles whacking giant crab bosses with your paddle while enjoying the endearing presentation to warrant jumping onboard. Co-op is where it's at, though, so make sure you enlist a mate for this voyage.